My Travel Map

My Travel Map

04 February 2014

Tromsø, Norway

North to Tromsø.  This city sits in the Arctic Circle, near the very top of a long, thin Norway.  The flight from Oslo only took a couple of hours, but to drive, it would take over 22 hours.  The city had an immediately noticeable remote feeling about it.  Considering its large distance from Oslo and most of the rest of Europe, Tromsø is actually a much larger city than I had expected.  The place is quiet, and its people are pleasant and very enthusiastic about the great outdoors, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that Tromsø sits in the middle of some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth.

Taking the bus from the airport to downtown, I was shocked when we entered the network of tunnels that run beneath the low hill that the city is built on.  These weren't your everyday tunnels either... there are multiple, wide lanes that stretch for several miles underground in beautifully clean, bored out tubes through what was solid rock.  I was blown away when we went through the first intersection down there... that's right, they had multiple traffic circles in this system... all underground.  Amazing.  When we re-emerged into the open air and I was dropped off beside my hotel and the old cathedral in the center of town, I immediately noticed how clean and crisp the cool air was.  It was the definition of refreshing.  The views across the water, as seen above, weren't bad either!

The Tromsø domkirke (Cathedral), built in 1861.  This was located just across the street from my hotel, and served as a great landmark for finding my way back.  Tromsø is a bit spread out, but everything is pretty easily walkable, even the longer distances if you're willing to take some time and enjoy it (especially if the weather permits).  Conveniently, there were also some great restaurants, bars, and cafes nearby too.  The Norwegian beer is very, very good, and the Mack Brewery (the Ølhallen, or Beer Hall), which claims to be the northernmost brewery in the world, was incredibly warm and welcoming and only a few blocks away.  Another place nearby was the Skarven Bar and Restaurant, nautically themed and also a great environment to enjoy some crisp ale or lager.  Conveniently, just across the street from the Cathedral was also an outdoors shop and a great little deli and cafe that had the most delicious sandwiches.  I ate there for lunch several times throughout the week, taking the food to go to sit outdoors in the Cathedral park or along the water.

Wandering around town, I noticed immediately how near perfect the light seemed to be... all day long.  Of course, I realized that being so far north in mid-September meant that the sun stayed pretty low on the horizon throughout the day.   So, the light made for some extra photogenic scenes around town, especially considering the bright colors used to paint so many of the buildings.  As I also found in Ireland, Newfoundland, and a few other places, the people of Tromsø seem to enjoy bright, technicolor buildings.  Like in those other places, the color probably takes a bit of the edge off of enduring the more unfriendly weather and darkness that engulf the town during the other half of the year.

Tromsø is an island, one of many in a maze of fjords, inlets, and islands, so boats are pretty important up there.  Throughout its early history, Tromsø also served as a major northern base for fishing and hunting, the spoils of which can still be sampled at restaurants all around town.  The first meal I had up there was a reindeer carpaccio starter and arctic char with potatoes for the main course.  As I had already found in Oslo, the quality of the food, both in the fresh ingredients and the delicate preparation, was just about as high as I've ever found.  That was the first time I'd ever eaten reindeer, and I really enjoyed it.  The meat was a deep dark reddish brown with a full, almost smoky flavor and buttery texture... delicious, especially with the toast and fresh red onion and spicy greens it was served with.  The char and potatoes in a white cream sauce were delicious too!

Anyway, I was talking about boats.  Tromsø has a lovely and lengthy waterfront area.  The place obviously caters to some wealthier travelers too... the boat seen here is not a fishing vessel.  It has been converted into a pleasure cruiser.  Inside you'll find luxury cabins, a quality galley, and even a wood fired hot tub on the back.  Their advertising propaganda featured young, attractive (and obviously wealthy) couples hanging out in the hot tub with drinks under the northern lights.  It definitely looked kind of awesome to me... though I doubt I could afford an overnight cruise with them anytime soon.

Did I mention that perfect light?

Things around town certainly were pleasant.  It was quite idyllic there.  I'm sure that the weather helped a lot... we were very lucky to get several days of clear blue skies and relatively warm temperatures.  The leaves were all turning on the trees too, which added some bonus splashes of color.   

Looking across the sound from near my hotel.  Some friends and I decided to walk across the bridge (off to the left as seen here) to explore the other side.  The town has sprawled to the other side, and there is also some great hiking and attractions over there.   

The most noticeable attraction is the Arctic Cathedral.  This modern landmark and place of worship is definitely distinct.  It is one of the symbols of Tromsø and is featured on many postcards.  I found the place to be much better from the outside... there is a huge and interesting stained glass window visible from inside, but other than that, it is pretty boring in there.  From outside though, the enormous, scaled A-frame is unmissable from most of the city.  Another main attraction can also be seen in this picture, at the top of the small mountian seen here...

That building at the top of the mountain is one of the two termini of Tromsø's cable car.  For a hefty price, you can take a ride up the mountain to enjoy the views from the top.  People also use the system to bring their bikes or skies up and enjoy the rides down the easy way.  We also met a woman who was bringing her dogs up for a hike the long way down the backside.  If you're not the adventurous outdoor type, there is still something for you.  The building at the top is fully equipped with a restaurant, bar, and great deck area with seating overlooking the city.

On a clear day, the deck at the top of the cable car run offers views like this of Tromsø and the surrounding area.  These two are looking northwest (above) and west (below).

I was amazed and exhilarated by the ruggedness of the surrounding mountains and the complexity of the broken coast.  The combination of sea and mountains is my favorite in the world, and Norway has it in abundance.  The view above is also looking down on central Tromsø.  The island that the city sits on wouldn't fit into a full frame, but you can mostly make out its shape from the last two shots.  Norwegians in Tromsø and the rest of the country have a great affinity for the outdoors.  I met plenty of hikers and hunters (the local mountains are apparently very good for game foul) and even one guy who rode a bike from the very top of Norway to the very bottom... a journey of close to 2000 km!!!  It's no small wonder though, that with a country that beautiful, you get a lot of people who like to be outside.

In addition to its natural geographic beauty, Tromsø is even more special because it sits in the Arctic Circle.  It is the land of the midnight sun during the summer months and more than a month of only darkness in the winter.  This big mosaic downtown is testament to the unusual light shows that the northernmost latitudes experience.  The city is also located right under the typical auroral oval, and we were in Tromsø for exactly that reason: a chance to enjoy the aurora borealis.  

We got lucky: as in Alaska earlier that year, nature decided to grace us with clear skies and several of its beautiful light shows.   We walked over to the southern end of the island several of the nights we were in town.  The point is parkland, so many of the city lights are blocked by trees and the island itself.  Other than the first night we went, when a Norwegian film crew showed up to film a horror movie under what seemed like unnecessarily bright spot lights, the skies were dark enough to make out even faint arcs, like the one seen along the northwestern horizon here.  Another neat feature was how the glow from the city lit up the undersides of some of the clouds... leaving them with a warm rosy glow to contrast the electric, alien greens of the aurora.

The aurora are just absolutely stunning.  Pictures do so little justice compared to watching those spectral shapes dance and evolve before your eyes.  The shapes and complexity of auroral activity confounds even those (like me and my colleagues) who study it professionally.  This "S" shape reminded me a lot of a serpent (maybe for Slytherin if there are any Harry Potter fans amongst my readers)... it's no wonder that ancient people associated these dancing lights with animal spirits and gods.

This is my UFO shot... that cloud in the lower middle had a completely different glow about it... reflecting light more from the Moon than from the city.  Add a well formed auroral arc to the shot and you have one of my favorites from the trip.

This graffitied boathouse made for a nice foreground.  I couldn't get over how lucky we were to be in that place at the right time for several nights... to have the bright red boathouse, epic mountains, puffy clouds and clear skies, plus bright enough aurora to actually get reflections in the water... unbelievably lucky.

This one shows some of the complexity within the arc... note the twisting, almost braided features.

These pictures are completely unaltered... those clouds really were glowing like that from the lights of the city beneath them.

The Moon was full, which lit up the clouds and much of the scenery, but the aurora was still bright enough to light up the sky and cast its reflection in the sound.

This is probably my favorite shot from the Tromsø auroras... that swirl was huge, taking up a big swath of sky.

We also caught the last cable car up the mountain one night, and were lucky to catch some activity from the top (seen here and in the first picture of this post).  It was brutally cold up there though and very windy.  The hike down the front of the mountain was quite fun, though it was pretty steep in places.  We brought headlamps with us though, having planned ahead to do the hike down since we knew the cable car wouldn't be running.  I'm quite glad we brought them... despite the full Moon, the narrow path got very dark once we were in the trees.

As part of the meeting, we also got out into the next big valley East of Tromsø.  On the bus ride, I noticed this epic peak, with one of the sharpest summits I've ever seen.  I was amazed that there were so few snowfields or glaciers up there.  I had underestimated the combined snow-melting effects of the jet stream, which bathes Norway in warm air from lower latitudes across the Atlantic, and the power of nearly perpetual sunshine during the summer months.  It was crazy to think that all of this would be covered in thick snow in only a few months, and even crazier to think that it would shed all that snow again the next spring.  With so much heavy, periodic weathering like that, it is no wonder that the mountains were often so jagged around there.

We made the trip into the valley to take a tour of this facility: EISCAT.  EISCAT stands for European Incoherrent Scatter Scientific Association.  It is a scientific facility and part of a network of three such facilities in Norway, Svalbard (islands far north of Norway), and Sweden.  The pictures seen here are of a large radio antennas, used to study Earth's ionosphere and its connection to the magnetosphere and the Sun.

A side-on view of the antennas... they are huge.  The railing seen at the bottom right is actually a staircase, and a person can walk into the rightmost part of the structure as seen here!  Note the camper trailer that is parked in the left foreground here too.... and that is sitting much closer to me than the antennas were from this viewpoint!

Another radar dish at the EISCAT site.  
Tromsø was a beautiful place to visit, though I have to admit that I got tremendously lucky with the weather while I was there!  The town further strengthened my appreciation for the Norwegian people and way of life, and the landscape made me start to fall in love with the country.  That fall was completed on a road trip to Lofoten that I took with a couple friends after our work meeting ended... but for more details on that, you'll have to wait for the next couple posts.

01 February 2014

Oslo, Norway

Norway: most immediately think of the land of vikings and trolls and fjords... or that country with the outrageous curling uniforms at the Winter Olympics (seriously... check them out), but the country is a quiet giant in the modern economic world and the people are now essentially polar opposites to their viking descendants (though they still love adventure and the sea).  Norway boasts the third highest GDP per capita according to the IMF, thanks largely to a wealth of natural resources and intelligent management of them.  Shockingly high prices of just about everything around the country reflect this economic prosperity, as well as Norway's successful socialist political system.  Norway's capital is the charming city of Oslo, with its ~630,000 inhabitants tucked away along the southern coast of the long, thin nation.  This is where I started my Norwegian journey, but don't worry, throughout my series of posts on Norway, I'll also be mentioning vikings and fjords and even trolls too.

Oslo is a relatively young city by European standards.  According to Norse legend, Oslo was founded in 1049 CE, though there was likely a human settlement on the site earlier than that.  Throughout its history, the city saw its share of devastating fires and ravaging plague, but Oslo (also known for a long time as Christiania) endured.  The modern city is an interesting mixture of old and new.  This building, which is the old city hall, was one of the older ones I saw.  It dates back to 1641 and is looking remarkable for that age too.  Like what I've seen in Stockholm and Helsinki, they tend to paint things with plenty of warm pastel colors or bright reds around Oslo too.

As I've found so often in the more affluent parts of Europe, Oslo has a very pleasant and charming feel about it.  The Norwegians pay excellent attention to detail and most definitely appreciate quality in everything around them.  Thanks to this, there are plenty of nice, charming touches everywhere you look.

One of the things that made me like the city and its people instantly was a huge book festival Oslo was hosting in its remarkably pedestrian friendly central part of town.  This is looking down Karl Johans Gate, which is a great place to go out for some food, drinks, or shopping.

Being mid-September, it was still technically summer when I was there, and the Osloites were definitely getting in their fair share of sunshine and relatively warm weather while it lasted.  Oslo has plenty of charming cafes with outdoor seating in lovely little courtyards, plazas, and patios.  I had my first Norwegian food and beer at a cafe like this, sitting outside surrounded by happy groups of people on a Saturday afternoon.  I had a fish soup, which was one of the most delicious soups I've ever eaten.  The seafood was the definition of fresh and they didn't skimp on anything either (they better not have considering the price I paid for a small bowl).  The broth was a briny garlic cream, and it was served up with some really good crusty bread.  The beer was crisp and refreshing, obviously made with good barley.  Like I said, Norwegians pay attention to detail and demand quality, and that trait extends to their food and drink!  

My friend, who was randomly also in town for work, and I went out for an evening on the town.  This turned out to be terribly painful on our wallets (thanks to US$12 pints of domestic beer) but wonderfully fun overall.  Osloites are very friendly, and we ended up chatting with multiple groups of people about all sorts of things, from life in the city to sports (skiing and hockey dominated that topic) and even politics (some Norwegians are concerned about their national image after their most recent elections).  We ended up closing the night at an English pub honoring Sir Winston Churchill (note the statue of the large bald man seen above is NOT depicting Winston Churchill, despite the resemblances and proximity to the pub) .  Apparently, when locals go out in Oslo, they go out hard.  To make up for the tremendous prices at the bars, youngsters supposedly pre-party at home with spirits before going out to a bar.  We came across plenty of folks who were a few past three sheets to the wind so to say, and even witnessed the remarkably low tolerance levels of Norwegian bouncers: they would literally pluck people right out of their seats mid-conversation (not even passed out, belligerent, or vomiting!) and escort them off premises if they simply looked too intoxicated!  Fortunately, that didn't happen to either my friend or I though...

Oslo is a multicultural city, unlike much of the rest of the nation, which is dominantly Scandinavian.  Norway's policy on immigration has changed a lot in recent years thanks to its being a part of the European Economic Area, which allows EU citizens residency without permits.  Norway also has a special allowance for refugees from war-torn regions.  Immigration is a hot political topic in the country, and despite the overwhelming majority of Norwegians being immensely tolerant people, there are still many unfair stereotypes and some distrust of immigrants (as in most...all?... other European countries).  Given its great wealth and socialist policies, Norway can be a very inviting place for immigrants.  However, one major hurdle is the necessity to speak Norwegian in order to be naturalized.   Most Norwegians speak fluent English, which they speak with most people who don't speak Norwegian. This makes it very difficult for first generation immigrants to become citizens, but their children have little difficulty after growing up speaking Norwegian at school and hearing it on TV and the radio.

Oslo has plenty of park space too, which just adds to the pleasant charm of the place.

It is incredible how green the Oslo area is.  The fact that there are densely forested hills and islands visible from the center of the city is testament to the Norwegian love of nature and the great outdoors.  Norwegians are a very active bunch, with hiking, hunting, biking, climbing, and various winter sports all being very popular.  The Oslo metro even connects the city center to ski slopes north of the city!

Standing over the city and commanding fine views of the surrounding area is Akershus Fortress.  The medieval stronghold was founded in the eleventh century and has since served as one of the city's principal focal points.  The castle has survived remarkably well over time, especially considering that it has been under siege multiple times throughout its long history.  More recently, it was used by the Nazi's during Norway's occupation in World War II.  The castle is now a museum and park.

Even if you don't go on the tour inside, it is still a nice experience to wander around the grounds and outside of the fortress.  It really does feel like you're back in the Middle Ages at times.

Guard duty outside of the Akershus Fortress... I always wonder what the hell those guys think of just standing there for hours and hours.

Norway, like several other European countries, still honors a royal family.  This is a picture of the Norwegian Royal Palace from the road.  I'm always quite shocked by countries that still support a royal family.  I picked my words carefully on that, since I have no problem with a country respecting its history.  Yes, those "royals" are indeed descendants of people who once ruled the nation.  However, they don't rule anymore, in fact, they most often have no official duty in government.  So, the thing that bothers me is that they are still supported by tax payer money!  And I'm talking a lot of money here too... Queen Elizabeth supposedly costs the Brits close to 50 million euro per year!  King Harald, Norway's current monarch, supposedly sets his taxpayers back ~28 million euro per year.  Must be easy to stay rich when you have an entire nation funneling money your way every year, let alone the fact that these "royals" also get government grants to refurbish and maintain their properties, which are treated as historical sites even though they are privately owned and closed to the public.  Honestly, it makes me sick.... these people are the true winners of the birth lottery.  They're born into a family with a tremendous amount of wealth, and I see no reason why any democracy should pay them even more money just for existing every year.  

Oslo's opera house... want to walk up the roof?  Go for it!  The design is definitely unique, and the views from up there are great.  Now, if only I enjoyed opera...

Unlike the opera house, Oslo's current city hall is nothing spectacular architecturally.  It is quite unique, and definitely bold, but in kind of a drab, Soviet-bloc sort of style.  All I'm saying is that I wouldn't go and give the architect an award or anything anytime this millennium.  It is worth a walk around it though, since there is an astronomical clock on the north side of the building and if you get the chance to go inside, then do so.  Despite what the outside might look like, it is beautiful on the inside... don't judge a building by its facade I guess.

Just a little further down from City Hall, sitting by the docks, is the Nobel Peace Center.  Every year on the 10th of December, which is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel (invented dynamite), the most famous prizes in the world are awarded at a special ceremony in the Oslo City Hall.  The Peace Center focusses on the Nobel Peace Prize laureates and their work.  It is an interesting place to explore, especially if you are comfortable debating some of the laureates and their work and have someone to do that with.

Oslo sits at the northern end of an enormous fjord, the Oslofjord.  This proximity to the sea resonates with Norwegian's general love of the water and boating.  It's no surprise then that Oslo's harbor is full of ships, everything from small dinghies to full-blown cruise ships.  There are plenty of ferries too, which can take you to a variety of destinations around the Oslofjord.

A ferry is how my friend and I got over to Bygdøy to explore a different part of the city.  Bygdøy is a large peninsula to the southwest of the city center.  It is a very quiet and relaxed residential neighborhood that boasts a high concentration of Oslo's museums.

Our first stop was the Viking Ship Museum.  I mean seriously... how could I pass that one by?  Like most other boys, I was fascinated by viking legends growing up.  The concept of a race of warriors venturing across the sea in primitive warships to raid and conquer foreign lands appeals to the imagination of most young, adventurous boys.  So, I seized the opportunity to actually see some of those primitive warships in person.

Oslo's Viking Ship Museum definitely lived up to my high expectations.  The cathedral-like building houses the remains of several of the iconic ships, two of which are in remarkably good condition.  The one seen above is the only one that was likely used for actual long-distance voyages.  It was a thing of beauty, with almost organic curves and obviously masterful craftsmanship.  The fact that vikings traveled across hundreds of miles of open and stormy North Atlantic waters in these ships is simply incredible.  They had to be very brave to risk ones life and go to sea in such ships.  

The museum also had plenty of viking artwork and decorated tools, weapons, and crafts on display.  This was one of the bow decorations.  Viking decorative art is detailed and intricate, with plenty of interwoven designs and scaled textures.  Serpents and horses are also common features.  The museum also housed the remains of several vikings, one of which had supposedly been killed in battle, based on the clear sword wounds to his tall skeleton.

The other ships in the museum were apparently for royal/aristocratic pleasure cruises around the Oslofjord or ceremonial purposes (they were found in burial mounds).  These of course were more intricately decorated and poorly equipped for open ocean travel, with larger, lower oarlock holes and smaller height-to-breadth ratios of the hulls.

Another of Norway's self-appointed symbols is the stave church.  These large, medieval churches are constructed almost completely from wood and were once found throughout most of Northern Europe.  Most remaining examples are found in Norway now though.  The scaled features and intricate decorative designs found on the woodwork of viking ships can also be clearly seen on Norway's stave churches.  This stave church was just a short walk from the museum; unfortunately, the grounds were closed when we got there, so I had to make do with the views through the trees from the road.

Our last stop on the Bygdøy Peninsula was the Fram Museum, which is housed in a huge A-frame building along the water.

As its name implies, the museum is devoted to one thing: the Fram.  The Fram is a ship that was used for polar expeditions by Norwegians in the late 1800s to early 1900s.  The really unique thing about the museum is that the building was built around the actual ship itself, as you can see in the above picture.  It is pretty surreal to see the various exhibits and stories of adventurous exploits around the museum and have the enormous, omnipresent ship, which made all those adventures possible, looming just beside or behind you.  

Fram was designed specifically for its first mission, which was to purposefully get the ship stuck in sea ice and drift with it through the Arctic Ocean during a winter season.  On that first expedition, Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left the relative safety of the ice-locked Fram and took off over the sea ice on skies to try and reach the geographic North Pole.  They made it all the way up to over 86 deg latitude before having to turn back.  The ships second major expedition took it on a journey of exploration to the Canadian Arctic islands.  The Fram's most famous journey, however, is undoubtedly that to Antarctica led by Roald Amundsen (statue pictured above) in his bid to be the first human to reach the geographic South Pole.

Norway is definitely proud of its history, and in my honest and respectful opinion, it should be.  The Fram Museum showcases some of this pride.  Through cold and brutally realistic calculation and execution, Amundsen's team was the first to reach the South Pole and the first to return alive.  A competing expedition by the English, led by Robert Falcon Scott, arrived to the pole after Amundsen (finding mocking evidence of the Norwegians' success) and all perished on the return journey across the continent of ice.  The Norwegians have always been strong explorers; vikings were the first Europeans to voyage to North America, long before Columbus.  During WWII, Norwegians fought with the Allies against the Nazis and served up fierce resistance to Nazi occupation.  This rich history has led Norwegians to where they are today, one of the wealthiest nations in the world and very friendly, honest, strong, and intelligent people.  Oslo is a great place to introduce yourself to Norway's history and its people before venturing off to explore other regions of that hauntingly beautiful country.